Ved Mehta
Ved Mehta Image Credit: Twitter

New York: Ved Mehta, a longtime writer for The New Yorker whose best-known work, spanning a dozen volumes, explored the vast, turbulent history of modern India through the intimate lens of his own autobiography, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.

The cause was complications of Parkinson's disease, his wife, Linn Cary Mehta, said.

Associated with the magazine for more than three decades - much of his magnum opus began as articles in its pages - Mehta was widely considered the 20th-century writer most responsible for introducing American readers to India.

Besides his multivolume memoir, published in book form between 1972 and 2004, his more than two dozen books included volumes of reportage on India, among them "Walking the Indian Streets" (1960), "Portrait of India" (1970) and "Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles" (1977), as well as explorations of philosophy, theology and linguistics.

"Ved Mehta has established himself as one of the magazine's most imposing figures," The New Yorker's storied editor William Shawn, who hired him as a staff writer in 1961, told The New York Times in 1982. "He writes about serious matters without solemnity, about scholarly matters without pedantry, about abstruse matters without obscurity."

The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 1982, Mehta was long praised by critics for his forthright, luminous prose - with its "informal elegance, diamond clarity and hypnotic power," as The Sunday Herald of Glasgow put it in a 2005 profile.

His literary style derived partly from his singular way of working: Blind from the age of 3, Mehta composed all of his work orally, dictating long swaths to an assistant, who read them back again and again for him to polish until the work shone like a mirror. He could rework a single article more than a hundred times, he often said.

One of the most striking hallmarks of Mehta's prose was its profusion of visual description: of the rich and varied landscapes he encountered, of the people he interviewed, of the cities he visited. (In the line of duty, he traversed India, Britain and the United States, including the teeming streets of New York, nearly always alone, with neither dog nor cane.)

"At the close of winter, Basant-Panchami - a festival honoring the god of work - arrives, and everyone celebrates it by wearing yellow clothes, flying yellow kites and eating yellow sweetmeats," he wrote in "Daddyji" (1972), the first volume of his memoir. "The fields become bright, first with the yellow of mustard flowers outlined by the feathery green of sugarcane, and later with maturing stands of wheat, barley and tobacco."

To some critics, the pinpoint acuity of these descriptions seemed too good to be true. Norman Mailer was reported to have charged that Mehta was not completely blind, threatening to punch him in the face. The congenitally bellicose Mailer died in 2007 without having made good on that vow.

But there was no trick to the keen visuality of his writing, Mehta said, beyond minute reporting, plumbing the inner depths of memory and the adroit use of the four senses at his disposal. His hearing was so acute, for instance, that he was said to be able to tell the make of a car by the song of its motor.

"I once described someone this way," Mehta wrote in 2001: "'A Player's cigarette hung from his lower lip and threatened to fall off at any moment.' I knew the brand of his cigarette from his chance remark. The hanging bit I picked up from the way he spoke."

As Mehta explained in interviews, the act of writing in general - and his modus operandi in particular - was a way of retaining mastery over a visual universe that had been denied him nearly all his life, a continuing project of self-location in a world bristling with image.

What was more, he said, although he had long been part of the world of the blind, he did not wish to write as if that community were his exclusive province.

Many of his nonautobiographical books, including "Walking the Indian Streets," made no mention of his blindness and read as if their author had witnessed firsthand the sights he described - a stance rooted in what he called "my determination to write as if I could see." Nor did he allow his blindness to be invoked by his publishers in most promotional materials.

In fact, Mehta argued, he was a member of five distinct cultures: that of India, where he was born and reared; that of Britain, where he received his postgraduate education; that of the United States, of which he had been a citizen since the 1970s; that of The New Yorker, where he remained on staff until 1994; and that of the blind, a world he had inhabited since losing his sight to cerebrospinal meningitis shortly before his fourth birthday.

But membership in any one of those communities implied the corresponding displacement from the other four, a state of affairs that his autobiographical series makes repeatedly plain. Collectively titled "Continents of Exile," the series is shot through with the disenfranchisement and loss of perpetual diaspora.

After "Daddyji," a closely rendered portrait of Mehta's father, the series continues with "Mamaji" (1979), about his mother. It proceeds through "Sound-Shadows of the New World" (1986), about his unlikely education at a school for the blind in Arkansas; "Up at Oxford" (1993); and "Dark Harbor: Building House and Home on an Enchanted Island" (2003), among other titles, before completing the circle with "The Red Letters" (2004). In that closing volume, Mehta, at 70, attains a renewed understanding of his father's life.

Speaking of the genesis of "Daddyji," he told the Indian newsmagazine Tehelka in 2009: "My father was a great storyteller - maybe that's how I ended up becoming a writer - but with seven brothers and sisters clamoring for his attention, I rarely got him to myself. Once that finally happened, in New York, I asked him to repeat the old stories he used to tell us. Initially it was mainly for my own edification. Then I started taking notes, and the book developed."

The fifth of the seven children of Amolak Ram Mehta, a physician, and the former Shanti Mehra, Ved Parkash Mehta was born on March 21, 1934, in Lahore, in what was then British India and known today as Pakistan.

Mehta had been educated in Britain and on returning to India became a prominent public health official. After the dissolution of the British Raj in 1947, he served as deputy director general of health services for the Indian government.

To the end of his life Amolak Mehta held himself responsible for Ved's blindness, which had arisen amid circumstances that encapsulated the class-consciousness and learned subservience that India's colonial history entailed. Though he had correctly identified his son's meningitis, he let himself be persuaded of an incorrect, far less urgent, diagnosis by a ranking medical official.

As a result, he felt he could honor an engagement to play tennis that day with a visiting British dignitary rather than take his son to the hospital. Had he sought treatment immediately, he came to think, Ved's sight might have been saved.

In an era when many blind Indians wound up as beggars, Amolak Mehta became determined to have his son educated. When Ved was not quite 5, he was sent some 900 miles away to one of the country's few institutions for blind children, the Dadar School for the Blind, an institution founded by Christian missionaries in what was then Bombay.

"You are a man now," his father told Ved as he placed him on the train, in the care of a cousin, for the long journey.

But the school, far from being the educational oasis Amolak Mehta had envisioned, proved to be more like an orphan asylum, populated mainly by blind street children. There was rampant disease and little serious instruction, though Ved did learn to read English in Braille; there was then no standard Braille alphabet for writing the many languages of India. He remained at the school for three years.